Who Was the Real Model for Kafka’s Gregor Samsa?

A leading theory ties the identity of the insect from Franz Kafka's classic "The Metamorphosis" to the author’s Hebrew teacher

Mordechai Langer as a Hasid and after he returned to a secular lifestyle, the Mordechai Langer Collection at the National Library of Israel

One of the most famous stories ever written in Prague is Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, which tells of a man who wakes up one bright morning to discover that he has become a “monstrous insect.” Reams have been written about the infinite symbolism of this story, which many see as a kind of great modern parable about rootlessness and the absurdity and helplessness of the human being faced with an irrational world. The best and brightest have offered complicated and bizarre interpretations about the grotesque insect that must face the hardships of reality and his immediate surroundings. Yet, it may be that the story’s inspiration is based on a real person—a Jew who lived in the city of Prague.

That Jew is Jiří (Georgo) Mordechai Langer, a local intellectual from a family that could be defined as Jewish, Czech, and even a bit German. They lived a comfortable bourgeois life outside of the Jewish Quarter, which many Jews in Prague had left behind in the as part of the Jewish emancipation process toward full citizenship. But something about Langer was different. He saw himself, first and foremost, as a Jew with a spiritual destiny. Langer’s spiritual journey took him to the Hasidic courts of Poland, and when he returned to his family in Prague, he looked like someone who had undergone a transformation. He had adopted the way of life, as well as the clothing, of a Belz Hasid. This was completely alien and even embarrassing to the Jews of Prague, who had left the ghetto life behind. Langer even behaved like an ascetic, eating only bread and onions, and walking at a fast pace, as was the Hasidic custom.

A statue of Franz Kafka indicating the place of his birth in Prague, photo: Dor Ben-Ari

At the same time, in Prague Langer acquired a deep and even poetic knowledge of Hebrew, while writing about the world of Kabbalah and Hasidism. He made a name for himself throughout the city thanks to his vast scope of knowledge, and among his Hebrew students was the as yet unknown writer Franz Kafka, who in one of his letters referred to his teacher as “the Westjude [lit. Western Jew] who assimilated into Hasidism.” Kafka witnessed Langer’s feelings of alienation from his own family, and one can note many similarities with the character of Gregor Samsa, the protagonist of The Metamorphosis. Langer’s brother, the writer František Langer, also noticed the resemblance. In any case, scholars today see a close connection between the city of Prague and the stories of Franz Kafka, and between Kafka and the Jewish community of Prague.

Photograph of Mordechai Langer from his book Me’at Zari [Hebrew], Davar Publishers

Nearly a century has passed since Kafka’s Hebrew lessons and fascinating encounters with Langer. Nevertheless, their respective literary legacies can be found under the same roof at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, alongside the archives of other members of Prague’s Jewish intellectual circle of those days, among them the writer Max Brod and the philosopher Samuel Hugo Bergmann. Prof. Dov Sadan deposited Mordechai Langer’s archive at the National Library, a collection which includes letters, copies of manuscripts, a few photographs and, for the most part, printed material related to the literary activity of the man who might very well have been the inspiration for Kafka’s best-known story.


How Did This Jewish Scholar Defend the Cossacks and Survive the Soviets?

The complicated and all-but-forgotten legacy of Saul Borovoi

"Throughout his research, Borovoi underscored how the calcified myths of Jewish life in Ukraine blind historians to the true way of life at the time." (Composite image: Borovoi in 1947, from Vospominaniia / Russian propaganda poster, ca. 1900)

In the late 1980s, an all-but-forgotten scholar named Saul Iakovlevich Borovoi (1903-1989) helped lead a revival of Jewish studies in the Soviet Union, his life having already spanned the entire history of the USSR, and then some.

Borovoi’s younger colleagues widely praised him. His voluminous work included such diverse topics as the origins of banking in Russia, Alexander Pushkin, and aristocratic culture of the nineteenth century.

“Saul Iakovlevich Borovoi’s contribution to our nation’s historical scholarship was so broad and multifaceted that one can only regret that fame and appreciation during his life were not extended to him in full,” wrote noted Russian scholar R.S. Ganelin after Borovoi’s passing.


Surviving the Soviets

Borovoi was a survivor, thriving as a Jewish academic despite numerous public and professional denunciations. Countless colleagues were forced to flee or were repressed in various way. In explaining his survival, Borovoi simply claimed that he benefitted from extraordinary good fortune.

Borovoi. From Vospominaniia (Memoirs), part of the National Library of Israel collection

Yet in reality, he protected himself by “meeting the needs” of the Soviet historical establishment, selectively interpreting the past, adopting aspects of the Soviet ideology from his time, and presenting Jews in ways that conformed to the political climate and demands of the Communist Party. In fact, he became an accepted member of the intellectual elite, despite not becoming politically subservient in retaining his integrity as a serious scholar of Ukrainian and Russian-Jewish history.

In general, the Soviet intellectual milieu in the 1920s was characterized by contradictions.

Judaism was condemned and its representatives – rabbis, communal leaders, and teachers – were repressed. Yet at the same time the government offered support for secular and pro-Communist Jewish culture. The Communist government frequently funded Jewish schools, museums, and scholarly institutions. In Kiev and Minsk, special scholarly institutions dedicated to the Yiddish language and culture were established. Scholars were employed and valuable libraries and artifacts (expropriated from other centers) were collected for study.

Strides made by scholars in the last years of tsarist Russia significantly advanced Jewish studies, yet the Soviet government aimed to keep scholarly work within strict ideological bounds. In particular, the authorities prohibited mentioning Zionism or using Hebrew, while promoting Yiddish as the language of the Jewish working class.

A group of well-known Jewish intellectuals, including renowned Hebrew literary figures Hayim Nahman Bialik, and Yehoshua Ravnitsky, shortly before leaving the Russian Empire for good via Odessa, 1921. From the National Library of Israel Photography Collection

In the mid-1920s, there was a push to integrate Jewish scholarship into the general literary life of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. The production of Judaica in Ukraine noticeably increased. In this way, the government showed sensitivity to Ukrainian language and culture as part of a policy to cultivate the loyalty of national minorities.



As a historian, Saul Borovoi had come of age in the period between the Bolshevik Revolution and the start of World War II. He was born in Odessa to parents who enthusiastically supported modern Hebrew literature. Family guests included Mendele Mocher Sforim, Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Ravnitsky. Borovoi’s father was a funder of Moria, the renowned Hebrew publishing house.

Borovoi as a young man. From Vospominaniia (Memoirs), part of the National Library of Israel collection

In 1924, the younger Borovoi received a law degree, enrolling in the Institute of Archeology around the same time.

Although there were voices against his promotion, influential scholars supported his advancement and he obtained a faculty position at Odessa’s Commercial Institute in 1932.

Not until 1940, however, did Borovoi defend his doctoral thesis on the Jews of Ukraine in the 16th  and 17th centuries.

Aerial view of Odessa, ca. 1940

During World War II, he spent three years in Samarkand, and after his return to Odessa, he resumed employment. In 1952, Borovoi was targeted for arrest during the Doctor’s Plot, but apparently escaped harm by virtue of his cramped living quarters. According to his account, NKVD agents were disappointed to find that he lived in a communal apartment, when as a professor he could have acquired a three-bedroom flat.

In fact, he left Odessa to escape arrest and stayed with relatives in Moscow. Stalin’s death saved him from further harm and within a year he was rehired at the Commercial Institute.

Unable to publish on Jewish history, Borovoi turned to general economic history.

His memoirs, Vospominaniia (Memoirs), published posthumously in 1993, provide a masterful portrayal of Jewish Odessa, vividly transmitting the atmosphere of pre-Soviet and then Soviet Odessa, Borovoi portrays notable portraits of the age as well as disquisitions on central historical themes and academic problems that he himself experienced.


Converts, Nihilists and Revolutionaries

In his articles from the early and mid-1920s, Borovoi portrayed the types that would reappear throughout his work. They include tsarist-era converts to Christianity, Jewish nihilists and revolutionaries, Jewish advisers to the tsarist government, and even merchants who collaborated with anti-Semites – “bad Jews” – in the words of Shulamit Magnes, a specialist on modern Jewish history.

Borovoi also focused on the internecine fighting among non-religious Jews from various factions, including radicals and government workers. Each side attacked the other using denunciations and gossip even though they had the same goal of radical russification.

In the mid-1930s, Borovoi faced a perilous political situation directed against historians who “deviated” from the party line. Arrests for “bourgeois” leanings and “nationalist deviations” were just some of the trumped up charges.  During this period Borovoi began his analysis of Jews in the Ukrainian uprising in the seventeenth century. Although he portrayed Jews who broke from the Jewish collective, here he also emphasized Ukrainian-Jewish unity.


Defending the Cossacks

Making use of documents that had not been available to earlier scholars, Borovoi took issue with the conventional interpretation that Jews were innocent victims, torn between Polish noblemen and Khmelnitsky’s Cossacks. According to Borovoi, Jews were fully engaged on the side of the Polish landlords whom they served and on whose victory their livelihood depended.

At the same time Borovoi made an unexpected discovery – that there existed Jewish Cossacks who aided the Ukrainians. In his view, two kinds of Jews lived among the Cossacks. One group consisted of Jews who converted to Russian Orthodoxy and joined as fighters (rarely) or as Christian clergy. For such Jews, membership in the 17th and 18th century Ukrainian Cossack state known as the “Hetmanate” offered escape from the fear of being captured and sold as slaves or for ransom.

Painting of 17th century Zaporozhian Cossacks by Ilya Repin, ca. 1890. Click image to enlarge

According to Borovoi, Cossacks also found allies in merchants who abetted the exploitation of peasant labor. Jews, who earlier had bought and sold the peasants’ produce for the Polish lords, fulfilled the same function for the Cossacks. In this way, Jews helped expand trade with the Turks in the South and Europeans in the West. Eventually Cossack fortunes fell as the tsarist government shifted trade routes to avoid a Cossack transit tax.

Although documentary evidence offers little information about Jews who came to live in the Hetmanate, Borovoi identifies certain individuals by name – for example, Moisei Gorlinskii and Musia Iosifovich.

Surprisingly, he claims that Jews who worked for the Cossacks were not objects of discrimination:

“Our materials testify with enough conviction that Jews in the Sech (Cossack camp) at this time were not subject to any special discipline and did not experience any special inhibition in their activities. Therefore, we have the right to speak of Jewish ‘equality’ in the Sech, of course in that framework where equality could exist for the non-Cossack population of Zaporozh’e [that was] restricted in participating in its political life.”

Oddly Borovoi uses the term “ravnopravie”— “equality,” a goal of Jews in tsarist Russia—to describe a coercive reality based on fear of Cossack violence.

Rather than criticize Jewish Cossacks for betraying their co-religionists at a time of crisis, Borovoi focused on their unity with the Ukrainians. Although the number of Jewish Cossacks was statistically insignificant, Borovoi exaggerates their importance, presumably to demonstrate the friendship between Jews and Ukrainians.

It would be too dogmatic to see Borovoi as an apologist of Ukraine. What he argues instead is that control by the military officials known as “Hetman” in Southern Ukraine in the late 17th century did not do away with Jewish trading in the area, but actually increased it.

According to Borovoi, for those Jews who found work trading with the Cossacks, conditions in those territories might have been superior to conditions elsewhere in Europe. The records show much rougher economic and social conditions in Poland, for example. By making these comparisons, Borovoi could in some way justifiably proclaim that there was “no persecution” in dealing with the Cossacks.

“The Cossacks Plunder”. From the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Throughout his research, Borovoi underscored how the calcified myths of Jewish life in Ukraine blind historians to the true way of life at the time.

When it came to some of the tragic events of his own lifetime, Borovoi refused to differentiate between Ukrainians and Russians, underscoring the link between Jews and non-Jews. Although noting examples of collaboration by officials and certain intellectuals, he expressed pride in the help extended by Odessa’s non-Jewish population during World War II, writing:

 ”Towards the end of spring of 1942, they [Jews] began to receive a tiny ration [around 200 grams of bread, frozen potatoes, and so on]. Furthermore, their position gradually worsened.  Although Jews lived and worked in isolation, nonetheless, between them and the local population some contact developed. The majority of the local population related to Jews with sympathy, and this was something fundamental, almost essential, that helped save those whom the bullet of the executioner and epidemics had missed. Thanks to the peasants, they [Jews] could somehow feed themselves and hold out until liberation day.”

Borovoi also gave special praise to Soviet partisans who perished in the fight against Fascism, noting that a number of these patriots were Jewish.


Remembering Jewish Suffering

Yet Borovoi never forgot Jewish suffering during this period. Having acknowledged the pain inflicted on all Soviet peoples by the Nazi invasion, he described the martyrdom of the Jewish people in particular. Transmitting eye-witness accounts of mass shootings, the suffering of marches in the terrible cold, and other impossible horrors, Borovoi mapped out the areas of Odessa and its suburbs that had been transformed into a killing field:

”The Domanev territory located in the north-eastern part of Odessa county was the most abandoned and far from Odessa’s train routes. It was designated as the best place for the creation of the ghetto – or to put it precisely – the place of mass extermination.  Bogdanovka entered into our tragic history forever as the Majdanek of the Transnistria… The other terrible place that one should remember is Akhmechet Headquarters – a real death camp located twelve kilometers from the village of Akhmechet on a pig farm. It was not a coincidence of course that pig farms were chosen as places of extermination. In this [decision] the ‘humor’ of the fascist executioners was expressed.”

Although Borovoi had at times minimized the significance of the Jewish collective, here he expressed his deep sympathy for the martyrs. At the same time Borovoi expressed his deep distain for Jews who denied their heritage to save themselves. It is possible that Borovoi felt survivor’s guilt.

Bodies of Jews murdered in Transnistria, October 1941

With his escape from Odessa as a member of the institute’s faculty, he left his father and brother in danger. His father died on the road and thousands of his neighbors went to their graves because they did not have sufficient influence to acquire a spot on the list of the saved. In any case he now praised the Jewish collective that he had earlier viewed with skepticism.

Regarding his own life, Borovoi asserted that antisemitism did not play a significant role, yet the recollections in his memoirs of post-war Odessa are chilling:

“I looked hard at the traits of my native city.  A great deal was new, that was difficult to get used to, and to which one could not become reconciled. On the gates of many houses one could see crosses painted haphazardly. It signified that the house had been cleansed of Jews. The house managers and officials were not hurrying to erase them. They were still visible almost a year after liberation. More than once and for a long time one could hear from behind, ‘The pests have come back.’  The word ‘pest’ in the mouth of Odessites who had survived the occupation acquired a distinctly ethnic connotation.”


Longevity and Legacy

In the last years of Stalin’s rule the Jewish theme was off-limits even to Borovoi. His book on the Jews in Ukraine in the 17th century was never published, although a leading Moscow publishing house, the Sabashnikov Brothers, had accepted it for publication. Nonetheless, parts of the book appeared as articles in journals.

Borovoi’s longevity was due in part to his low profile and his refusal to join to the Communist Party during the purges. He also refrained from defending his dissertation until he was thirty-five. However, he always affirmed his loyalty to the Soviet Union.

Borovoi, 1962. From Vospominaniia (Memoirs), part of the National Library of Israel collection

In his memoirs Borovoi stated:

“Nonetheless I have been happy in my life. I survived the difficult years of revolution, civil war, hunger, and epidemics. I was not repressed in the thirties or the early fifties, and that was a happy coincidence. The most serious illnesses passed me by. I was able to spend my life engaged with my favorite subject. I was lucky to meet many good, kind, and smart people…”

Although Borovoi’s research conformed to what was considered acceptable by the Soviet authorities,  it would be wrong to view him as an ideological spokesman for the party.

He depicted Jewish individuals differentiated by class and identity, educational achievement, and professional status. Even so-called “bad Jews” were symbols of modernity and radical change.

Borovoi offered compelling studies that showed the fissures, internecine conflicts, and internal weaknesses among the Jews of Eastern Europe. His treatment of history was far from one-dimensional.

A version of this article appeared in Russian-Jewish Tradition:  Intellectuals, Historians, RevolutionariesIt appears here as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

The Jewish Book That Revealed the Secrets of the Heavens

In 1600, three scholars from completely different worlds met in the “New Venice” castle outside Prague. The meeting lasted three weeks and resulted in a Hebrew astronomy book, as well as in a lesson about the unifying power of love for the sciences and the quest for knowledge

Our story begins in 1599, when Tycho Brahe, the Danish astronomer and nobleman, arrived in the city of Prague in Bohemia (now the Czech Republic), at the invitation of Emperor Rudolf II, after he was forced to flee his own country. Rudolf II, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, was known for his interest in art, the sciences and alchemy. After moving his court from Vienna to Prague, the city became a magnet for artists and scientists. At the time, Prague was an oasis of tolerance in an empire divided by religious tensions. The city’s splintered religious communities managed to live together in relative harmony.

The same calm prevailed in the Jewish Quarter. Its Hebrew printing house, which was one of the first of its kind in Central and Eastern Europe, had transformed Prague into a center of Hebrew learning. At the same time, the Prague Beit Midrash (a Jewish “house of learning”), headed by the famous Rabbi Judah Loew Ben Bezalel, also known as the Maharal of Prague, attracted scholars from across the Jewish world. One of the Maharal’s students was David Gans, who despite his rabbinical education, was drawn to Renaissance culture and began writing studies on history and the sciences in Hebrew.

The crowded living conditions and various plagues that swept through the Jewish Quarter led the curious scholar to leave Prague, but he diligently continued his studies. At some point, he heard that the most famous astronomer of the day, Tycho Brahe, had relocated his great observatory and astronomy research center to the “New Venice” castle north of Prague, not far from the village where Gans was then living. With a dose of good old-fashioned Jewish chutzpah, the industrious self-taught Gans, who had no formal scientific education, decided to pay a visit to the castle and see how he might gain access and perhaps learn some of the secrets of the universe.

The “New Venice” castle today in Benátky nad Jizerou, Czech Republic

Surprisingly, Gans received a warm welcome, and he remained at the castle for three weeks (likely excluding Fridays and Saturdays), learning from the best minds of the time. He described impressive and complex measuring tools beyond his imagination, as Brahe was known to have made his many discoveries without the aid of the telescope, which was still in its infancy as a scientific tool. While at the observatory, Gans also met and studied with Brahe’s assistant, Johannes Kepler, who was himself destined for greatness in the field of science. Gans also made his own humble contribution by translating Hebrew astronomical texts that were otherwise unavailable to Brahe and Kepler.

Illustration from the Jessnitz print edition of Gans’ book, Neḥmad VeNa’im

Gans wrote the Hebrew book Neḥmad VeNa’im (“Nice and Pleasant”) in which he recounts his meeting with the two great scientists and what he saw and learned while he was in their company. He describes in detail the impressive observatory, and how Brahe would “seclude himself there with his wise men . . . and . . . sit with twelve men, all wise and astute in science . . . and the great analytical tools never before seen and the thirteen rooms all in a row which the emperor had built him, and a special tool in each room.” Gans also explains how the tools were used to calculate astronomical and geographical measurements, thus separating the Ptolemaic cosmological knowledge he was familiar with, from the innovative Copernican astronomy he encountered.

In that time, the distinctions dividing science and mysticism, as well as astronomy and astrology, were fairly blurry. In fact, many scientists and scholars, Brahe and Kepler included, dabbled in occultism. Gans devoted some of his sketches to an explanation of the zodiac, but these were clearly separate from the main content of his book. Apparently, this distinction was intended to alert readers to the value of scientific observation over mystical divination. Furthermore, Gans makes a number of statements in the book that deny the use of astronomy as a means of foreknowledge and argues that this form of knowledge is misguided, and that even the slightest use of the zodiac [as a scientific tool] was wrong in his view. It seems that Neḥmad VeNa’im’s purist, Copernican viewpoint led to a later printing in 1743, 130 years after Gans’ death.

Brahe died about a year after his encounter with Gans and was buried in splendor in the Church of Our Lady before Týn, in the Old Town of Prague. Kepler moved to Prague for a few years where he served as a scientist in service to the court. He resided just a few minutes’ walk from the Jewish Quarter, where Gans had returned to live. We know that Kepler and Gans maintained a correspondence, apparently communicating in German peppered with Hebrew, which Kepler remembered from his studies at the University of Tübingen. According to Neḥmad VeNa’im, Kepler even claimed that the solar system moved elliptically, similar to the Hebrew letter khaf (כ). In 1613, the same year that David Gans died, Kepler left Prague in order to further his research and thus ended the story of these three scholars – a Danish nobleman, a German burgher and a rabbinical Renaissance man – brought together through their curiosity and love of knowledge and science.

One no longer need infiltrate a remote castle to discover what Gans was so eager to learn. His book can now be read on the National Library of Israel website in the original Hebrew. A number of manuscript copies of Neḥmad VeNa’im are also available.

Illustration included in a manuscript copy of Neḥmad VeNa’im


Further Reading:

Jewish Thought and the Scientific Revolution of the Sixteenth Century: David Gans (1541-1613) and His Times, André Neher, translated from the French by David Maisel, Oxford University Press, 1986


Is Fish and Chips a Jewish Delicacy?

The little-known Jewish connections to a few of the world's favorite foods

A Jewish immigrant is credited with serving the world's first "fish and chips" around 1860, though the dish's roots go back deep into Sephardic Jewish history

Fish and chips — the classic English street food combo of deep-fried, breaded fish fillets and crispy chips (French fries to Americans).

Chili con carne — that spicy, meaty, slow cooked stew that is so well-known from the American Southwest.

Foie gras — fatty goose or duck liver, often utilized in any number of French haute cuisine dishes.

What do they all have in common? While widely eaten and strongly associated with their regions of origin, each have little known connections to the Jewish people, and their history.


Fish and Chips

The strongest (and best known) of the connections applies to fish and chips. Invented in the immigrant-heavy East End of London, this dish combines two elements that share one production method — deep frying.

Frying battered fish fillets (for this dish, plaice, cod or haddock are most common) was typical to Sephardic Jewish cooking. The Oxford Companion to Food notes:

“As Claudia Roden (1996) observes, there was a strong Jewish tradition of frying fish in batter and eating it cold. And it was ‘fried fish in the Jewish fashion’ which Thomas Jefferson discovered when he came to London and which was included in the first Jewish cookbook in English (1846).”

The Jews were expelled from England in 1290, and it wasn’t until the 17th century that Jews were allowed to openly settle and practice their religion in the country. The new Jewish communities were largely from Holland and of Spanish-Portuguese descent. Many settled in London’s East End, and, in fact, the oldest continuously used synagogue in the United Kingdom is the Sephardic Bevis Marks Synagogue in that area.

The Bevis Marks Synagogue in London. From the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

By the 19th century, there were also a number of Irish immigrants in the same part of the city, and their chips shops stood alongside those of Jewish fishmongers. Jewish immigrant Joseph Malin has been recognized as the first to look at these two deep-fried foods and put them together into one delicious combo, apparently some time in the early 1860s.

A plaque recognizing Joseph Malin as the originator of fish and chips

On a side note, the Sephardim typically covered their fried fish in “agristada” — a thick lemon-egg sauce that is still common today. As they moved in a different direction from Spain following the Expulsion, some arrived in Greece. There, according to historian Gil Marks’ Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, they left their mark on the local cuisine, and Greeks have a soup that incorporates this sauce, known as “avgolemono” (literally “egg-lemon”).


Chili con Carne

That same Expulsion edict that sent Jews east towards Greece (as well as Italy, Turkey and other places) and north to Holland and later to England, also sent Jews in other directions.

Some found their way to the New World, starting early communities in places such as Suriname, Curacao, Brazil and Mexico. Though some of these immigrants were openly Jewish, there were also large contingents of so-called “Crypto-Jews” — those who outwardly converted to Christianity (known as “Conversos” or “New Christians”), yet secretly maintained some connection to their Jewish heritage, due to the authority of the Inquisition even in the New World.

Illustration of a dining scene appearing in a 19th century book on the Inquisition. From the National Library of Israel collections

Though Mexicans had already been making stews that included chili peppers, Marks and others have suggested that it may have been these same “Crypto-Jews” who first added meat and beans to the dish.

Chili con carne has similar ingredients — and a similar slow-cooking method — as hamin, the traditional Shabbat stew, which took a big culinary leap forward during the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry, when new ingredients were added and the dish became notably more sophisticated.

Interestingly, there is even evidence from Inquisition records of New Christians in Brazil making Sabbath stews of beef and chili peppers.  While this is unlikely to be a direct antecedent to chili con carne, due to the geographic distance, it does show a similar predilection and perhaps even a connection to a shared culinary precursor.


Foie Gras

The Jewish connection to foie gras is more certain than to chili con carne, though somewhat less significant than to fish and chips. People have engaged in the process of purposefully fattening geese since ancient times, both in Egypt and Rome. According to the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, it may have been Italian Jews who preserved this tradition and transported it to Western Europe, though others believe that the Romans themselves may have originally brought the technique to France.

Either way it became a very Jewish endeavor, such that by the Middle Ages, Ashkenazi Jews specialized in the process of creating foie gras and were recognized as the masters of it.

Interestingly, the foie gras itself was not the primary goal of these Jewish goose farmers.

Geese appearing in an early 20th century Jewish children’s book published in Warsaw. From the National Library of Israel collection

Rather, it was a by-product of the desire to create enough schmaltz — rendered poultry fat — for cooking through the year. Since the laws of kashrut forbid any mixing of milk and meat, butter could not be used as a cooking medium for any meat product, and since pork is also forbidden, lard (rendered pig fat) could also not be used.

While Jews living around the Mediterranean Basin and across the Middle East had access to olive oil, this was inaccessible to the Jews living in more northern climes, so they would render the fat of geese, ducks and chickens, and use that schmaltz for much of their cooking. For similar reasons, agristada’s popularity among Sephardic Jews is also largely due to the fact that it could be used as a thickener for meat soups and stews in place of butter.

Jews were also amongst the first to mash the foie gras into a paste, and mix in things such as egg and onions. This not only developed into the French pâté de foie gras but also into another traditional Ashkenazic favorite, chopped liver.

Many people today have issues with foie gras, due to their perception of the pain inflicted on the geese during force-feeding. Some have presented evidence of Jewish ethical opposition to the practice going back at least until the 12th century, however Rabbi Dr. Ari Z. Zivotofsky has convincingly argued that these sources have been misinterpreted. According to Zivotofsky, there has been significant opposition to the practice based in Jewish law over the centuries and into the modern period, though it stemmed from concerns about dietary restrictions (kashrut), as opposed to being driven by ethical objections.

Product wrapping for Israeli foie gras, ca. 1960s. From the Eri Wallish Collection, National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Nonetheless, in more recent history many Jewish voices have spoken out against the practice and over the past two decades, Israel has been one of the world’s leaders in legislation prohibiting the production and sale of foie gras.


“Jewish Dishes”

Dozens of dishes from around the world include the word “Jewish” in their names, but on a deeper level, there have been many examples over the centuries – like fish and chips, chili con carne, foie gras and avgolemono to name just a few – when the Jewish influence was more subtle, remaining largely under the radar.

Jews have spread all over the world throughout history, and have integrated (to greater or lesser degrees) into the cultures that surrounded them.

The foods they ate have often – if not always – been influenced by what non-Jewish neighbors ate, many times altered in order to meet the requirements of kashrut. Yet, the influence in the other direction, of Jewish cooking on other culinary traditions, is too often overlooked and is more significant than many of us may have ever realized.


A version of this article first appeared on The Taste of Jewish Culture. It has been published here as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.

Sources and Related Reading

Eat and Be Satisfied: A Social History of Jewish Food, John Cooper

The Jewish Kitchen: Recipes and Stories from Around the World, Clarissa Hyman

Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, Gil Marks

“Foie Gras ‘Fake News’: A Fictitious Rashi and a Strangely Translated Ethical Will”, Rabbi Dr. Ari Z. Zivotofsky